Editorial: Tax e-cigarettes the same as tobacco products

By The Herald Editorial Board

Last year, the Legislature caught up with the e-cigarette industry and imposed a pack of licensing, safety and enforcement regulations.

Licenses and fees were set for retailers selling e-cigarettes and other vaping products. Sales and possession of e-cigarettes were prohibited for those younger than 18. Manufacturers had to include a warning label about nicotine. Child-resistant packaging was required. And vaping was prohibited near schools, child care facilities, playgrounds and other places were children normally are present.

What the Legislature didn’t do last year was tax e-cigarettes and vaping products as the tobacco products they are. In Washington state, cigarettes and other tobacco products are taxed at 95 percent. Not so e-cigarettes and the “vape” fluid that produces the cloud of vapor and delivers addictive nicotine into the lungs. The only tax collected is the 9.5 percent sales tax.

The Legislature has the opportunity to correct that omission this session. Two bills have been introduced that would impose a tax on vaping products. HB 2144 would tax vaping products at the same rate as cigarettes; a second bill would tax them at a 60 percent rate.

It should easily follow that a product that is almost exclusively derived from tobacco and delivers nicotine should be considered little different than tobacco and should certainly be taxed the same.

“This tax is something these companies should have been paying all along,” Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, HB 2144’s sponsor, told the Associated Press last week. “They’ve gotten off scot-free for years, while causing incredible damage to peoples’ health in the state.”

Vaping is defended by many as an alternative to smoking or a way to quit, one that involves fewer of the harmful chemicals, such as tar, common to cigarettes. But in escaping tar, those who vape may be inflicting other harmful chemicals on themselves, particularly those agents used to give vaping liquids the flavors of fruit, candy and more.

A 2015 study by Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that the flavoring chemical diacetyl was found in more than 75 percent of electronic cigarettes and vaping liquids.

Inhaling diacetyl, the study said, is associated with the respiratory disease bronchitis obliterans, also known as “popcorn lung,” because it was first seen in workers who inhaled artificial butter flavor at microwave popcorn processing facilities. Popcorn lung inflames and obstructs the lungs’ airways and is irreversible. Severe cases can be treated only through lung transplants.

The flavors used in e-cigarettes are one lure for younger customers, and have been used to market specifically to youths. One Los Angeles-based company, Alpha Vape, offers flavors named Heist (caramel apple), The Dude (mango and peach) and Sweet Tooth (vanilla and graham cracker).

The other lure encouraging their use among teens, despite the age limit, is the lack of a tax, making vaping more affordable than smoking.

Those lures are working. A national survey last year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 24 percent of students at U.S. public middle and high schools had used vaping products in the last month, a higher rate than previously seen.

The vaping rate among students in Washington state was lower, according to the state Department of Health’s 2016 Healthy Youth Survey. Among 10th graders, those who used vaping products dropped to 13 percent in 2016, from 18 percent in 2014.

But the same survey found that two-thirds of 10th graders did not perceive a risk to using vaping products regularly. And 27 percent had borrowed an e-cigarette, while 16 percent had given money to an adult to purchase vaping products for them.

Like last year’s licensing law, which directed the revenue from licensing fees to the Health Department’s youth tobacco prevention fund, HB 2144 would allocate the tax revenue from e-cigarettes to public health accounts for smoking and vaping education and prevention efforts, enforcement and other public health programs.

That allocation is sorely needed.

The state of Washington receives about $676 million annually from tobacco taxes and from a lawsuit settlement with tobacco companies. But last year the state spent only $640,000 on tobacco prevention, 1 percent of the $63.6 million in spending recommended by the CDC, according to a report last year by the American Cancer Society. As recently as 2009, the state had spent $28 million on those efforts.

E-cigarettes and vaping products have benefited from a tax break for too long, one that has been used to hook teenagers and others on nicotine.

The Legislature needs to kick that tax break habit.

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